Interview for the Richard III Society
(published in the Ricardian Bulletin, June 2008)
Dr Ian Mortimer was born in Kent and won a scholarship to Eastbourne College (Sussex) and later read for degrees in history and archive studies at the universities of Exeter and London (UCL). For the period 1991 to 2003 he worked for a variety of archive and historical research organisations, including the Devon Record Office, the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts and the universities of Exeter and Reading. He has BA, MA and PhD degrees in history, and is both a qualified archivist and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He was awarded the Alexander Prize by the Royal Historical Society in 2004, and was made an Honorary Research Fellow at Exeter shortly afterwards. Ian lives on the edge of Dartmoor with his wife and their three children. He agreed to be interviewed for this issue of The Bulletin. We put a number of questions to him:
When and how did your interest in history develop?
When? In infancy. I grew up in a house which, although a suburban semi-detached, contained a number of relics of our family over the previous two centuries. For example: the ‘Bishop’s Throne’ – a Windsor chair given to the family by a bishop of Exeter in the nineteenth century. Or a painting of the village where we lived in the eighteenth century. Or engravings of the premises of the family business, Mortimers’ Cleaning and Dyeing Works, Plymouth, which we owned and managed from 1773-1933. Hence there was this continual sense of the past – our past – all around us.
This combination of wonder and familiarity with the past increased when I was taken on days out. In every cathedral I visited as a child I played a game of ‘hunt the Mortimer family coat of arms’. At Wigmore Castle, the seat of the medieval Mortimer family (which my father erroneously believed was connected with us), I found a wonderfully neglected overgrown ruin. It had a magical atmosphere like ‘Cair Paravel’ in the Narnia books. At the age of eight I completed a school project on the ‘Mortimers, Nevilles and Woodvilles’. At twelve I was beginning to find the old DNB entries on the medieval Mortimers somewhat lacking and so applied for a British Library Readers’ Pass in order to further my knowledge. I was politely but firmly told to re-apply when I reached twenty-one.
There are, I think two important points underlying this experience. The first is that a strong sense of the past and the continuity of a culture is wound up in family life, and family identity. It is surprising how often the history-educating role of the family is overlooked, only to be remembered when a calamitous event takes place which we immediately know is going to be something we speak about to our children and grandchildren. The second is that historical ideas and conclusions which develop outside the classroom tend to be much more powerful than those taught within it. Classroom history is very often history tied to an academic (or educational) agenda. It is thus about evidence, analysis of evidence, and the contstruction of an argument; it is not about the past. For my own part, the very fact that I sympathised from an early age with medieval characters – the Mortimers especially – who had been denigrated by supposedly scholarly writers gave me a real sense of the failure of academia to connect with reality. Naturally I wanted to do something about it.
There has been much debate over the past few years about the role and importance of history in today’s world; as an historian and writer how would you justify its relevance?
This is an immense question, with many different angles. One answer – taking history in its broadest sense – would be that the role and importance of history is simply that it allows Mankind a view of itself over time, including our capacity to change and evolve, rather than the self-knowledge we may acquire in the superficial mirror of the present moment. In this sense, history is essential to understanding what Mankind is, and is the fundamental platform upon which almost all non-instinctive human knowledge is built.
To go beyond this, and to provide an answer which has significance for the practice of history on a day-to-day basis, I think you have to differentiate between the types of history there are. Obviously, history is not synonymous with the past; but nor is it synonymous with the study of the past either. Academic history, for example, is the study of evidence relating to the past – not the study of the past itself. Moreover, academic history has particular constraints on its form – it must eschew drama and emotion, for example, even when describing historical events which are essentially dramatic (a battle) and emotional (a love affair). Popular history, on the other hand, might be little more than fine story-telling (although no one should underestimate the difficulty of telling a story well). The values and roles of these two equally demanding disciplines are very different. The prime importance of academic history is in education – not just of historians but of civil servants and managers – for the very assimilation of historical information and the need to produce an argument based on the evidence available is a process which society depends on in millions of social interactions every day. The value of popular history is of a different nature. It has much more to do with the greater purpose of history as outlined in the previous paragraph. Popular history allows people a view of society over time. It brings them together in a shared understanding of some aspect of the past – be that an individual or a cause or an identity. It gives us a sense of our place in time, as well as our place in the world.
Over the last eighteen months I have spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of history and its role in modern society. There were two reasons. The first was because I was writing a book called The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. This is literally a guide to the past as if you could go there yourself. When you arrive in fourteenth-century England, what will you see? What will you eat? What will you wear? Now, you could look on this as just a fun exercise, but the process of writing about ‘virtual time-travel’ leads to a completely new way of looking at the past. Rather than take a piece of evidence such as a royal writ and explore it for its meanings; ‘virtual time-travel’ allows you to take a question rooted in our modern world ‘how clean were people in the fourteenth century?’ and to answer it on the basis of a range of pieces of evidence including our own understanding of the human experience. It is a form of history rooted in human identity and modern interest in how that identity was manifest in the past; evidence is secondary. The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England will be published in October: readers might like to dip into it to see whether they think that social history geared around ‘virtual time-travel’ has merit – feedback would be welcome.
The other reason why I have spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of history and its role in modern society is because of the challenge of postmodernism. From the 1970s postmodernist philosophers and crtiical theorists developed a series of critiques of history which collectively left the discipline reeling. Or, to be precise, they isolated the historical profession in their ivory towers of education and research. Outside those ivory towers, intellectuals were expounding on the fragility of historical knowledge – how it is based on evidence which is partial, how historians select their evidence according to their own ideas, and how all history is questionable and thus of little real value. Most historians had no answer to postmodernism – unsurprisingly, as they were paid and trained to teach history, not tackle philosophical questions – and the few who did take on the mantle of ‘defender of history’ were academics who sought to justify history through recourse to the evidence (most notably Prof. Richard Evans). As many commentators pointed out at the time, this only ‘defended’ academic history. For my own part, my own experience in finding that the evidence for the death of Edward II was based on a piece of misinformation gave me a valuable insight into how any evidence-based justification for history is bound to be weak. If the information used by a scribe in writing a chronicle or letter was actually untrue, then the chronicle or letter he writes is untrue. Or to be particular, if the evidence that Edward II died in Berkeley Castle depends on a message which was untrue, then it does not matter how distinguished a professor you are; by accepting that evidence you are opening yourself up to professional ridicule – like you would be if you took a load of Christmas cards and concluded that, on the weight of evidence, most people believe Father Christmas exists. The need to distinguish between information, evidence and past reality gave me no option but to reject past ‘defences’ of history and come up with my own.
In answering the question: ‘what right have I got to say anything about the past?’ I decided to divide my answer to this question in two. The first part, what right I have as a professional historian to speak about what happened in the past in an authoritative way, is contained in an essay ‘What isn’t history? The nature and enjoyment of history in the twenty-first century’ which will be published in the October 2008 edition of History (the journal of the Historical Association). The second part, what methods I can employ to be sure that the evidence I select is reliable and how I can justify not using other contemporary evidence – questions which lie at the very heart of the postmodernism questioning of history – will be published as the methodological introduction to a book of essays on medieval information and evidence, provisionally entitled Medieval Murder, Timeless Information, which I hope will be published in 2010.
What significance does all this have for the role and importance of history in the modern world? On the one hand, as shown in ‘What isn’t History?’ the discipline must be rooted in the wider concerns of society in order to have meaning. A historian who works out the exact causes of the Hundred Years War and mutters the truth privately to himself in a quiet corner might as well be wrong. You cannot ‘do’ history for the sake of history. If history has social meaning – if society is to embrace history as a form of self-knowledge – then what we write aout the past must be rooted in the wider concerns of society, not in the relics and documents which just happen to have survived. Secondly, the need to build more robust means of describing past events requires us to distinguish between evidence, information and past reality; but once we have done this we may develop new forms of knowledge and means of ascertaining what happened, and how the world came to be as it is. In this sense history is the foundation for almost all human knowledge and understanding, and its importance is absolute.
As an academic historian how do you view the work of organisations such as the Richard III Society, particularly in terms of what they contribute to historical research and raising the popular profile of our past?
Let me state here quite clearly: I AM NOT AN ACADEMIC! I do not teach. I do not undertake research along lines dictated or suggested by anyone else. I do not feel obliged to follow any academic conventions such as eschewing drama and emotion in my writing. Indeed, I see it as a complement to my writing when members of the public say my book ‘reads like a novel’. Say the same thing to an academic and it is tantamount to saying his or her scholarship cannot be relied upon any more than fiction.
I see myself as a writer who occasionally brings scholarly research skills to bear on difficult subjects. This sometimes gives my books and articles an academic appearance. Such non-academic contributions do have an impact on academic history (such as my argument that the information underpinning the announcement of the death of Edward II is false, or that Richard II was definitely murdered by his cousin’s order). But much of my work is structured for the sake of drama, or enjoyment, or the understanding of a character or a situation.
I see the Richard III Society in much the same role. Its great strength – and I do mean great strength – is its ability to combine scholarship and enjoyment, and to rise above the cloying weight of academic history in the wake of Geoffrey Elton. It can draw upon members with scholarly skills to answer difficult questions with authority. It can encourage academics to consider new and interesting views on the past. But above all else it is interested in promoting history as an enjoyable and inspirational intellectual activity.
Do you have a particular approach when writing and researching historical biographies?
Sort of – but I’m not sure how interesting it is. Researching and writing is not a spectator sport; few historians live interesting lives. I have written on my website about how I write about a battle – and how, with regard to the actual writing of a battle, a bottle of whisky is as important a resource as the chronicles and secondary works one draws upon for facts. Otherwise everything I do is pretty predictable. I spend a week or two at the National Archives each year photographing all the manuscript material I might need and copying it on to a laptop. Digital cameras are probably the biggest methodological change in the last ten years, more important even than the expansion of the Internet. The day the British Library allows scholars to use digital cameras as freely as the National Archives does, I will rejoice.
You have written about Roger Mortimer, Edward III, and Henry IV, are currently writing about Henry V and researching Richard, Duke of York: the obvious question to ask is - will this lead you to Richard III?
I hope that in four or five years’ time I will be writing a book on Richard III, and that it will be the sixth volume in my sequence of biographies of important medieval characters. I think of them collectively as a ‘biographical history of medieval England 1300-1485’, for I see a direct connection between Roger Mortimer’s successful challenge to royal authority in 1327 (book one), Edward III’s reassertion of strong kingship (book two), the power struggle of 1397-1400 and the rebellions against Henry IV (book three), the events of 1415 (book four) and the origins of the Wars of the Roses (book five). Of course the events of Richard III’s life fit into this pattern, with meaning as well as resonance. However, I would be rash to say yes for certain – four or five years is a long time, and writing a whole book about 1415 at the moment makes me look at the events of 1485 as being far, far in the future.
Whatever your answer to 5, do you see Richard III as being a challenging, and perhaps deserving, subject of your sympathetic biography approach?
Yes, and yes, without a shadow of a doubt in either respect. Anyone writing about Richard has to contend with a massive amount of existing literature. The sheer weight of it is remarkable, considering that Richard’s reign was the shortest of any crowned king of England. Then there is the problem of the princes in the Tower. Regardless of what you think may have happened, something did happen and we don’t know exactly what. But whatever it was, it was important. Thus the ‘hidden history’ of this period means that there are untouched, undiscussed pitfalls for any biographer of Richard. For unlike an academic historian, who can simply say ‘we have no evidence’ a biographer cannot simply say we do not know what happened to Edward and Richard. A historical biographer has to paint a coherent and complete picture of his subject, so to ignore the problem of the princes is to ignore something of massive importance to the king’s life (whether he was guilty of ordering their murder or innocent). I have to say I am absolutely dreading that decision. Somebody is going to want to skewer me, either way.
As for whether he deserves a sympathetic portrait, surely every historical person does? I think the end of my answer to the first question you asked is relevant here: everyone – every historical character – has their own point of view. When people tell me I am far too kind to Henry IV in The Fears of Henry IV I tell them that they are missing the point: I did not set out to judge the man as good or bad, guilty or innocent. The whole purpose of my biography was to understand the man, as far as possible, from his own point of view. No one had ever done that before (athough plenty of peple had written sympathetically about Richard II, in the wak eof Shakespeare). No doubt Henry himself would have been even more fervent in explaining why he did what he did – and his subjective position is a valid point of view too. In my philosophy of history the judgments by partially informed students of the past living hundreds of years after the events are meaningless. So what if we denigrate Edward III and Henry V as warmongers? So what if we play up the fact that they were both intelligent, considerate men who secured domestic peace for England? What is valuable and meaningful is to understand how a man faces and deals with the challenges of his time. In that sense writing about the two years of Richard III’s reign is every bit as challenging as writing about the fifty-year reign of Edward III, and one needs to be just as slow to judge and as eager to understand the character, whether you think he was a malevolent murderer or a much-maligned scapegoat.